The last time he saw Daria was the funeral.
The rain is what he always remembered the most. It was pouring down in buckets, creating small murky pools all around the graveyard. He was a shell of himself then, nothing but an empty vessel that was running on autopilot. If he could've screamed he would've but it felt like his voice had been wrenched away from him. He imagined himself bursting into flames when he finally set foot in the church. Here he was: the ultimate sinner. Begging for penance wouldn't be enough.
Daria was the first person he saw. There was almost a physical barrier around her, as if she'd walled herself off to the world. He made his way towards her, cautiously, like a man approaching a wild animal. She stared straight through him.
He was reminded of it as he sat across from her, so close and yet so disconnected. He knew one coffee wouldn't be enough to mend the fractured mess that was their relationship. She idly flipped through the dessert menu, eyes never straying far enough for him to hold her attention. Even after all this time, she could still shut him out.
"What are you doing these days?"
He hated these kinds of questions. They were the ones that everyone secretly hated but that always wormed their way into conversation. They were the boring questions, the ones that made every interaction feel like a chore. The brief grimace that crossed her face let him know that she felt the same.
"I write jingles".
That was enough to get her to look at him. Her gaze softened ever so slightly as a smile played on her lips.
"I always knew you'd sell out eventually".
"You're right; I'm a real corporate stooge".
"Anything I've heard?"
"Deals on Wheels sound familiar?"
"Ah", she clicked her tongue, "I knew I recognized that voice. Your wife must be thrilled".
"Maybe. If I had one".
She opened her mouth to make a comment before she looked at his ring-less finger. She clamped her mouth shut again as a light flush colored her cheeks.
"I'm sorry. That was presumptuous of me".
"I was married. Didn't work out. You know, life".
The sting of his divorce didn't hurt nearly as much as he thought it would. After he'd been through so much, something like that was nothing more than an inconvenience. It was a rocky four years, all of him trying and failing to be a good husband. He could never stick to his commitments, even when he tried. Excuses got old fast and it was only a matter of time before he screwed things up for good. At least the split was mostly amiable.
"You're supposed to make this better, not worse".
"Triple chocolate cake".
He reached over and pointed to the menu, "I've found that cake can improve almost any situation".
"Oh no, I couldn't".
"We'll share", he was already standing up before she could protest, "My treat".
They almost shared a kiss on her twenty-first birthday.
It was a latent memory that she'd almost forgotten until they were hunkered down at the table with a slice of cake between them, close enough that their elbows were almost touching. The location couldn't have been further from where they were now. It was a loud and crowded dive bar called Brigg's that catered to both the college-crowd and the sad loners who couldn't find anywhere else to get a cheap beer. She was somewhere between the two that day and her melancholy mood was only made worse by the fact that she was supposed to be celebrating. She always hated her birthday, even as a kid. There was something distinctly artificial about being forced to smile and be happy because she was a few hours older. She hated how much effort her parents put in to decorating the house when she already knew that nobody was going to show up. She hated how much pressure she was under to have a good time when all she wanted was to be left alone. On top of it all, she felt like a terrible person for putting her family through the same tired song and dance every year. No matter how much she tried to beg them off, it never worked. And now, here she was, miles away and forced into the same old tradition masquerading itself as something new and exciting.
Jane had forced her out of the apartment and dragged her into the outside world. She let her outfit reflect her outrage, choosing something dreary and somber as her form of protest. She was a dark cloud in a brightly lit room. It didn't take long for her to sequester herself off to a lone table near the back of the room, far enough away from any stranger that might decide her isolation was an invitation. Jane was perched at the bar, surrounded by friends and strangers alike. She was in a sleeveless t-shirt despite the cool temperature, showing off her new tattoos more important to her than catching a cold. She was striking in a way that made people pay attention, no matter what she was saying. She was in her element there and Daria could see the chaotic energy dancing around her as she spoke. It was in moment's like these that she was forced to see how different they were.
They didn't see the world through the same lens anymore. Jane had this sense of adventure that drew her to people. It was something that Daria struggled to understand in high school and that still confused her now. What could Jane see in a stranger's face that she couldn't herself? Was there some hidden code she hadn't cracked yet? Some link she was missing?
"Hey, Daria. Happy birthday".
Her bitter musings were interrupted by the one person she least expected to see. Trent easily pulled up a chair beside her as if he could tell that she was avoiding everyone on purpose. He placed a beer on the table, his silent peace offering for disturbing her, and waited. She eyed it for a moment before taking a drink.
"A healthy glass of cyanide would be better".
Her voice sounded empty even to her own ears. She was tired, not physically but emotionally. She didn't want to be stuck in a room full of people that only reminded her of how miserable she was. She didn't want to sit and watch while her best friend flirted with the bartender and she struggled to even order a drink. She pulled on the collar of her turtleneck as if she could will it to hide her away. The room was too loud, too alive, and she desperately wanted to be anywhere else. The intensity of Trent's gaze only made it worse. She always felt like he could see straight through her, down to the jagged and broken bits that she so closely shielded from the world. He always saw her for who she really was, much like his sister. It was equally as unnerving.
"I'm going for a smoke".
He didn't ask her to join him but the question was hanging in the air. He was giving her an opportunity, an out, if she wanted to take it. Again, she was amazed by how he could figure her out so quickly. She didn't say anything in response, she simply grabbed her bag and followed him outside. The back parking lot was empty and she instantly felt relieved. There were no expectations out here, no traditional birthday rules to follow. Out here, she could simply exist. Trent occupied a space at the wall next to her, far enough away not to encroach on her personal bubble but close enough to talk - if she chose to.
"What is wrong with me?", she finally said, her voice little more than a whisper, "Why can't I do this?"
"Are you asking?"
In any other instance, she would've made a joke to gloss it all over but the thought of putting on the mask today was far too exhausting. She nodded as she cast her gaze upward, the slowly darkening sky reminding her that the day was, thankfully, almost over.
"Jane made it all sound so easy. We get dressed, we go out, we have fun. It's never that simple for me".
"It's not easy for her", he cast a sidelong glance in her direction, "Janey just puts up a good front".
"Did you see her in there? Can you imagine me doing that?"
"No", he said easily, his honesty cutting her in a way she didn't expect, "But that doesn't make you worse, doesn't make her better. You two work differently. Jane gets hurt but she still searches for the best in people".
She crossed her arms, "And me?"
"You're too smart for that", he continued, unimpeded by her sharp glare, "You know that most people are rude or selfish or plain cruel. You'd never allow yourself to be put in a position where someone had the upper hand".
"It saves me the trouble of having to cut people off later".
"Maybe so", he shrugged, "But you miss out on so much. Janey would rather endure that pain. She'd jump off a building if it meant becoming a better version of herself".
She thought back on all of the times that Jane did something she thought was reckless and stupid, all the times Jane welcomed someone into her life only for it to blow up in her face. To her, it was the sign of someone that refused to learn from their mistakes. She couldn't understand why Jane would so willingly put herself in the same position over and over again when she knew it wouldn't work out. It was maddening.
"If what I'm missing out on is sudden death, I think I'm fine right where I am".
"See? You're so good at blocking people out. In there, in a room full of people, you know better than to let them in. But even out here, with me, you make sure I can never really see you".
"Maybe I don't need anyone to see me", she felt herself retreating back, further into the shell that he was trying to pry away, "There's no harm in being cautious".
"You're scared of feeling too much, of letting yourself truly enjoy something. Because if there's pleasure than there's gotta be pain, right?"
In a matter of seconds, she was completely exposed. It felt like someone had yanked off the band-aid, refusing to allow her the satisfaction of wallowing in her misery. It was the ugly truth, plain and simple, and Trent had presented it to her so calmly that she didn't know how to react. There was something deep inside of her that wanted to tell him he was wrong, that he had no idea what he was talking about. It wanted to protect her from all of the emotions that were threatening to burst forth at any moment.
"I wish I was half as smart as you are at your age but I wasn't. I'm still not", a warm smile curled his lips as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He made no moves to light it, instead resting it behind his ear, "But all the mistakes I made, I wouldn't take them back. You've gotta let your guard down sometimes, give things a chance. Even stupid things like twenty-first birthdays at shitty bars".
"I guess I have no choice".
"Cut Janey some slack too. She knows you better than you think. She knew you'd never go for a party".
"I am. I do", she sighed, "Bet you wish you'd never gotten me that drink".
"Then I wouldn't be having the most interesting conversation I've had in weeks".
It was an answer but not the one she expected. She stared at him as her mind worked to process the meaning behind such a statement. They'd talked before, hundreds of times. She wanted to ask him what had changed this time around but the words got stuck in her throat. For the first time in ages, there were those annoying butterflies flitting around in her stomach. As much as she'd opened up, she was still too afraid to tread through those waters. There was no doubt in her mind that he knew about her feelings back then, of course he did, but speaking them into existence was something else entirely. It was a high school crush, something she had no reason to be embarrassed about, but that didn't stop her from nervously tugging at her shirt sleeves.
"...Thank you, Trent".
It was then that their eyes met and she was struck by a familiar thrill of electricity. She didn't pull away from it this time, instead choosing to meet it head on. She was drawn in by the clean, fresh scent of his skin, close enough to feel the warmth emanating around him. Her fingers were itching to reach out and touch him, to feel the softness of his worn t-shirt beneath her palms, but she was frozen. She'd kissed people before but this wasn't the same; this was Trent. He let out a sigh, a short shuddering breath that betrayed everything he wouldn't say. She knew that he was asking himself the same question: what would it be like? It was an innocent thought on the surface but she knew there were years of confusing, pent up emotions behind it. He reached for her, calloused fingers sliding through her hair to cradle her face. He leaned in to her and she let her eyes fall shut, waiting for a moment that never came.
The sound of the door creaking open forced them apart. Just like that, the moment was lost forever. She turned around to see Jane barreling through the doorway, her face flushed from one too many drinks. She smiled as she easily grabbed a hold of Daria's hand, tugging her into a embrace. She could feel Jane's laughter reverberating through her chest as she was held closely in wiry arms.
"I was looking all over for you! I thought you'd escaped".
"And I would've gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids", she easily fell back into her role, trying her best to put the past several minutes behind her, "Did they kick you out?"
"Of course not; they love me. I came out here to wrangle you back in before Trent's set".
"Better get going", Trent stepped around them, sparing her one last look before he was gone.
Jane pulled back, a knowing look in her eyes, "What were you two talking about?"
"Nothing", she disentangled herself from Jane's grasp, eager to return to her reclusive state, "It wasn't important anyway".
She'd been silent for far too long but Trent didn't seem to care. She poked at the cake with her fork, not having the appetite for sweets or really anything. It was so long ago that she might as well have been a completely different person. The girl that she was then was nothing like the woman she'd grown into. Back then, she was so terrified of being seen as vulnerable or - worse yet - emotional. There was something deeply humiliating to her about admitting one's flaws and it drove her to put up walls. Dozens of them. It got so bad that she even had a hard time facing herself. Jane's death was enough to shake the very foundation on which she'd built most of her beliefs. It was a hard fall. She couldn't help but wonder if Trent's journey was just as rough.
"...Did you need some help?"
The last thing she wanted to do was set foot in that house again but that seemed like the appropriate thing to say. She didn't want to see Jane's eyes everywhere, watching her every move. Even worse was the thought of walking into that room. The old apartment was one thing but that room might just be the final straw. He took another forkful of cake but he didn't bring it towards his mouth, instead letting his hand hover awkwardly in the space between the table and his chair.
"Only if you want".
She had no idea what she was getting herself into.